A company with ties to PT Arara Abadi, the Indonesian forestry group that feeds the mills of paper-producing giant Asia Pulp & Paper, is lobbying the government for a 300,000-hectare swath of southwest Cambodia for plantations that would radically transform a region coveted by environmentalists and industrialists alike for its tracts of forest. The proposal was documented in correspondence to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries obtained last week by The Cambodia Daily, in which Taiwanese businessman Paul Yu requests the land to plant acacia, eucalyptus and other trees for paper production on behalf of the Taiwanese company Green Elite.
Submitted April 9, the request remains under the ministry’s consideration, but the oft-criticized paper-producing industry has already established a foothold in Koh Kong province through a second Taiwanese company, Green Rich Group Co Ltd.
Green Rich broke ground on a controversial 18,000-hectare acacia plantation inside Botum Sakor National Park earlier this year, and is now readying to plant acacia on about 3,000 hectares of cleared land.
Yu is representing both Green Elite and Green Rich in Cambodia, where they share a common office in Phnom Penh. His newly proposed plantation, if successful, would expand both companies operations to an area roughly the size of Svay Rieng province.
Green Rich and Green Elite staff this month claimed links to PT Arara Abadi, which feeds APP’s paper mills. Both Arara Abadi and APP are controlled by the Sinar Mas Group, one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates with a network of paper mills and land holdings that extends into China and India.
Frankie Ng, a plantation adviser to Green Elite and former employee at an Arara Abadi plantation in Indonesia, said the company had imported thousands of seedlings from Arara Abadi, which he referred to as the “sister company” of Green Rich and Green Elite.
He declined to comment on the specifics of their business relationship; however, he presented an Arara Abadi brochure to advertise credentials for Green Rich and Green Elite.
“We are not the kind of company that is going to cut [forest] and then run away,” Ng said.
Green Elite is now operating inside a 1998 land concession, since reduced to the current 18,000 hectares, that included other large tracts in Koh Kong and totaled some 60,000 hectares. Ng and others at Green Elite say that project will be a boon for Cambodia, employing thousands of locals and sparking prosperity in the southwest.
John Adams, a consultant for Green Elite who for many years has worked for Arara Abadi, said Green Rich’s plans in Botum Sakor park were ecologically sound attempts at reforesting through plantations. Adams and others at the Green Rich company noted that the plantation under way in Koh Kong was once logged and now is what foresters call “degraded forest.”
“When these people can no longer fish because illegal fishing has depleted the waters, what are they going to do? How are they going to make a living?” he said.
But the possible large-scale development of plantations for paper production in Cambodia is certain to alarm environmental groups that fear logging and development will wreck natural forests in the southwest, one of the least developed parts of the country. Such plantations have already been roundly criticized in other parts of the region.
Rampant logging and competition for dwindling natural resources have led to a steady devastation of forests in Sumatra and forced APP to expand into China, India and other countries in Southeast Asia, said Christian Cossalter, who has been tracking APP’s worldwide growth for the Center for International Forestry Research. “They’re counting on plantations outside of China [to provide raw materials for paper production], and Cambodia is definitely at the top of their list,” Cossalter said.
But “in a country [such as Cambodia] with large tracts of natural forest, there is not much incentive to build a sustainable plantation,” he said.
APP has also come under consistent fire from regional environmental groups, including World Wildlife Federation Indonesia.
As acacia plantations have not been a sustainable source of timber for APP’s mills, the company has relied on cutting natural forest or buying illegally felled timber, according to WWF Indonesia and other conservation groups. About 35 percent of the timber processed at APP’s pulp mills in Sumatra comes from uncertain origin and likely was illegally harvested, according to a WWF report this year.
In addition to allegations of land-grabbing and illegal logging, Human Rights Watch, in a January 2003, report accused the company of striking down dissent in Indonesia’s Riau province by villagers who opposed the company’s operations and its acquisition of land.
Contacted by telephone last week, an Arara Abadi spokesperson in Indonesia said the company had a subsidiary called APP Cambodia but could not provide contact information. The spokesperson did not provide her name.
An international public relations group for APP, Ogilvy Worldwide, did not reply to queries sent by e-mail last week to its office in Jakarta.
In past interviews, Yu has maintained that Green Elite intends to develop a sustainable plantation and that it will employ military and police to guard against illegal logging. The company is building infrastructure at its Koh Kong plantation that includes a nursery, wood chipping machines and a road cutting through the concession.
Still, several legal obstacles stand between the Green Elite proposal and its realization in Cambodia, including a basic land law prohibiting concessions of more than 10,000 hectares.
Kith Seng, director of the department of statistics and planning at the Agriculture Ministry, said that Green Elite had requested land several times over the past year and that, at first glance, the April 9 proposal seemed unfeasible.